Benhabib on Butler

BUTLER Parting waysWhen I first became interested in critical theory (an age ago now), I found Seyla Benhabib‘s work – and especially Critique, norm and utopia (1986) – wonderfully clear and immensely helpful. She has recently published an extended review essay on Judith Butler‘s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism in Constellations (2012) (open access – at least for now).  It’s a characteristically careful, lapidary essay, which works towards this climactic conclusion:

Is there any hope then? I believe there is but not through boycott, divestment and sanctions movements, which are based upon a false analogy between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the South African struggle, but through continued, sustained, and deep engagement with all countries in the region. Even if the Arab Spring in Egypt brought into power a conservative Islamist party, building and drawing upon its years of resistance to the Mubarrak regime, it was a new generation of Egyptians who first put their lives on the line and who showed us one more time that the legacy of revolutions is, as Hannah Arendt would say, “like a fata morgana” that appears to travelers in the desert in unexpected ways. This young literate generation of men and women are present everywhere in the Arab world; they are networked throughout Europe and the USA and in many other countries as well via migratory nets of kin and family. Today this new generation has not yet found its political voice and they continue to fight behind the Islamic flag to the chants of “Allah is great.”

Israelis, who for a long time considered themselves as the sole democratic peoples in the Arab world, have been taken aback by this evolution. But many have rejoiced in it as well. Protests against Israeli government policies, inspired by Tahrir Square erupted in the summer of 2011 in Tel-Aviv, with thousands of young people chanting for social justice, housing, and jobs. Hundreds of Arab citizens of Israel participated in such protests. The number of Arab youth who are now perfectly bi-lingual is growing and, along with it, their political capacity to engage Israeli society directly. Many Palestinian Arabs living in occupied East Jerusalem would much rather become Israeli citizens in an open and gender-egalitarian society than live under the Islamist rule of a Hamas party. The racist attacks by Israeli religious youth this past summer against Palestinians in the old city of Jerusalem galvanized an entire country around anti-racist teach-ins and demonstrations.

Any call for “cohabitation” between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples that does not balance the continuing paranoia of extinction on the part of Israeli Jews with the legitimate claims and aspirations of the Palestinian people is a non-starter. This means that Israelis themselves will need to think hard and fast about the mess they have created in aspiring to maintain a “Jewish state” on the one hand and continuing to occupy the territories of the West Bank on the other. But the facts on the ground are moving in a different direction and much to the chagrin of liberal Zionists who still advocate a two-state solution: given the military and economic dependence of the West Bank territories upon Israel, maybe the time has come to call for a “confederation of Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” with two parliaments and two separate electoral systems but a common defense and security policy over territory and airspace, and shared water and other natural resources. Under such a scenario, the considerable achievements of the Israeli state and society in economic, technological, medical, and intellectual areas would not need to be dismantled but Israeli sovereignty would be disaggregated and nested into a joint confederal model.

My own instincts are closer to Butler than Benhabib, but her problematisation of Israel’s exceptionalist claims to ‘democracy’ and her investment in a wider political geography (including the Arab uprisings) is surely essential for any project of what Butler calls, following in some part Hannah Arendt,’cohabitation’.

But the very term ‘cohabitation’ is also unsettled (the mot juste) by a vital ‘fact on the ground’ that Rashid Khalidi identifies in the New York Times with vigour and precision: ‘The overwhelming dominance of Israel over the Palestinians means that the conflict is not one that demands reciprocal concessions from two equal parties.’

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